Tag Archives: Playwrights Horizons

The FS Saw . . . The Shaggs

I saw The Shaggs Philosophy of the World at Playwrights Horizons on Wednesday (May 25, 2011), in its second preview performance.  Based on a true storyThe Shaggs describes how Dot, Betty, and Helen Wiggins, sisters from Fremont, NH, were coerced into becoming a band by their mercurial, rather psychotic father, Austin, whose plan for his daughters’ musical career came to him as a vision from his dead mother.  The three young women had no musical training or interest before he pulled them out of high school, bought them two electric guitars and a drum set, and ordered them to learn to play.  The musical traces their reluctant artistry and his increasingly crazy designs on their futures.

Austin uses all the family’s money to cut an album that gets no airplay, and tries to book gigs that take them nowhere, essentially because no one but him thinks his daughters are talented.  The musical traces how each of the daughters suffers differently from the way his dreams constrain their own.

With a story by Joy Gregory (who wrote the book and lyrics), Gunnar Madsen (also music and lyrics), and John Langs (who also directed), The Shaggs is a fascinating, affecting show.  The story would be entirely unlikely if it weren’t true.  The frame puts Austin (Peter Friedman) in conversation a bit too often with his deceased mother to deliver the requisite exposition.  But scenes among the sisters are full of nuance and heart, of hope for the potential of what they might become and sadness over what they know they really are.  The family’s interactions with the amateur and professional music world convey the awkwardness of people from a small town in the 1960s trying to achieve stardom, a goal that only Austin truly desires.

Because the girls are teenagers when Austin’s plan begins to take shape, The Shaggs also illustrates how difficult it was for them to maintain normal childhoods.  Betty (Sarah Sokolovic) tries to play up her feminine wiles but her advances are rejected by Kyle (Cory Michael Smith), the young man whose dream is to be, as he describes it, a cosmonaut.  Kyle’s affections run to Helen (Emily Walton), the youngest Wiggin daughter, who’s infatuated with him in return.

Helen can’t quite see anything distinctive in her future.  Even before her father sets them on their wrong-headed musical path, she decides she’ll distinguish herself by refusing to speak.  Dot (Jamey Hood), the oldest, is most determined to please her father and bend to his will.  Her ambivalence about his strange notions conflicts with her loyalty.  (Her one solo is called “Don’t Say Nothing Bad About My Dad.”)

That each of the sisters is so clearly different from one another provides part of the musical’s charm.  Hood, Sokolovic, and Walton do a beautiful job individually and as a trio, finding complicated allegiances and friction among the sisters while they suffer together their father’s sometimes harsh and isolating, utterly ineffectual training regimens.

In a repeated sight gag that describes how desperate Betty and Helen are to free themselves from their father’s tyranny, they leave the family home through a bedroom window, throwing themselves head first over the ledge and being whooshed out into the night.  When Austin realizes their escape route and boards it up, their suffocating imprisonment is horrifying.

The Shaggs is a small show with a very consistent narrative and pop-musical tone.  It evokes the stultifying environment of small town life, with its hierarchies and affectations and its community and camaraderie.  Annie Golden is lovely as the beleaguered mother who wants to help her husband pursue his dreams, but can’t fathom his obsession with making their daughters famous.  Walton brings sweetness to Helen’s silence and makes her mute expressions full of meaning and appeal. Smith is affecting as the earnest Kyle, who suffers his own injustices at Austin’s hands.  Kevin Cahoon and Steve Routman, who rotate through various supporting male roles, bring just the right level of affectionate caricature to each one.

As Austin, Peter Friedman stretches out of his more typical abject characters into that of a forceful patriarch whose madness drives his family over the brink of disaster.  Unfortunately, Austin’s obsession and brutality make him rather one-note; the daughters’ scenes are more compelling than those in which their father stokes his insanity.

Gregory, Madsen, and Langs also creatively solve the challenge of how to create a good musical about talent-poor musicians.  The audience hears The Shaggs rehearsing and understands their unfortunate limitations.  But when the girls enter the recording studio and Austin listens to them cut their demo tape, we hear them as he does, as sparkling, charismatic talents who can sing and play and even dance.

When the scene cuts to the recording engineers, listening to the band through the studio monitor, they hear them as they are—off key, uninspired, and performatively flat.  Maintaining these two spheres of their musicianship throughout The Shaggs—the fantasy and the reality—allows the story to be told through the very idiom the band couldn’t quite master.

Ironically, Lester Bangs, writing for Rolling Stone, rediscovered The Shaggs in 1980, when punk rock created a context in which their atonal, affectless music made sense and even seemed radical.  But in The Shaggs, for the Wiggins sisters, their father’s control over their lives can’t be redeemed.  Even after his early death of a heart attack, they can’t shake loose his damaging legacy and the humiliation they suffered from his misbegotten dreams.

The Feminist Spectator

The Shaggs Philosophy of the World, Playwrights Horizons and New York Theatre Workshop, at Playwrights Horizons.  Opens June 7, 2011.

Link to original post on Blogspot.


Bathsheba Doran’s lovely new play is a meditation on community and the unlikely ways in which it forms and dissolves across time. With a light touch and moving, smart insights, Doran paints a series of vignettes that illustrate how despite the fundamental ambivalence with which we make our collective way through our lives, our sometimes unlikely connections with one another can be real and sustaining.

Anna (Kristen Bush) glues together a disparate group of quirky characters. At the play’s opening, she’s a grad student in English at Columbia working on a thesis about punctuation in Keats. She sits silently, withstanding the harangue of Simon (Matthew Rauch), a male professor with whom she’s had what appears to have been a casual affair. He’s breaking it off with all the pompous ego-centricity of an over-educated, over-privileged, too-cool white man. (Doran did her MFA at Columbia, and observes the peculiarities of academic practices with droll humor throughout Kin.)

In Anna’s next scene, she moves from Simon to Helena (played by the galvanizing, terrific Laura Heisler), her oldest friend, a mostly out of work actor who’s devastated by the death of her dog, with whom she’s clearly had her longest, most important emotional relationship. The two women bury the poor animal together at night in the park, even though Helena knows that the city forbids such interments. The scene is both funny and poignant, and sets the dual tone on which Doran balancesKin’s emotional quotient throughout.

In a parallel universe that soon connects with Anna’s, Sean (Patch Darragh), an Ireland-born personal trainer, speaks by phone to his mother, Linda (played by the wonderful Suzanne Bertish), back home. He’s broken up with a girlfriend who turned out to be a drug addict, and Linda is house-bound, agoraphobic because she was raped many years ago by the murky figure she calls the “man in the mist,” who’s never been identified or prosecuted.

Matched up by an on-line service, Anna and Sean begin to date, and Doran intertwines their very different lives in surprising, never predictable ways. Each character is drawn with confident, clear, and compelling attributes but with little elaborate psychology. Doran provides some back-story—Anna’s mother died of cancer when she was a teenager; her father, Adam (Cotter Smith), is a military man with professional and personal secrets that keep him and his daughter estranged; neurotic Helena’s mother is a psychiatrist. But we learn these details by accretion rather than through exposition, because what motivates Doran’s characters isn’t as important as the choices they make in the play’s present.

All of the characters change across the arc of the play in ways that seem hopeful without being facile or trite, and although Anna is central to the group’s relationships, her trajectory is ultimately one among many. Sean thinks Helena is crazy, then begins to feel real affection for her; Anna finds her dead mother’s diary and realizes that her parents were never happy; Sean wonders if he loves Anna and remains emotionally preoccupied with Rachel (Molly Ward), his drug-addicted ex.

When he first finds out about his daughter’s relationship, Adam scoffs to Kay (Kit Flanagan), his secret lover, that Sean will never amount to anything. But he comes to respect Sean, to see his goodness, and to understand what the young man brings to his daughter. Anna never meets Kay, who sees Anna’s picture for the first time on the cover of her book, even though Kay has mothered Anna, unacknowledged and unknown, from a distance for most of Anna’s life.

Adam’s secret relationship with Kay stands in for the wealth of what we don’t know about one another. Relationships, Kin suggests, are risks we take based on the tiny bits of knowledge we’re able to gather, confronted with how finally unfathomable we are to one another, yet how inevitably tied. Our connections are tenuous and attenuated, but they persist.

Helena, to whom Doran assigns the funniest lines and the most outrageous traits, seems poised on the brink of disaster throughout the play. She cries frequently and easily, sometimes for cause, sometimes not, and her career as an actor is minor at best. She dreams of a ward of children who’ve tried to commit suicide, and sees herself among them. But instead of ending her life, Helena begins it again by moving to North Carolina, where a confrontation with another animal provides the epiphany she needs to reboot her emotions.

Doran and director Sam Gold provide a hysterical spin on The Winter’s Tale’s famous stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear,” in a scene that provokes not only laughter, but admiration for Doran’s ability to craft a scene with such delicious theatricality and such moving sensitivity.

No prefabricated, falsely cataclysmic pathways open for these characters. Instead, Doran observes them making ambivalent but sustaining and transforming choices that change them by accretion, over time. On a very simple set that uses moveable pieces to frame the action, the most salient décor is the clocks that actors place on the walls, not to tell the time, but to remind us that time is the element in which we act. Time passes, as it does in Kin, in ways that we’re surprised to mark, in ways that bring us closer together and draw us apart less by agency than by the simple accumulation of hours, days, and years.

As Kin progresses (in under two hours with no intermission), Anna gets her PhD, writes a book, and gets tenure, but none of these events are as determining as what she learns about herself in relationship to the others. That self-knowledge isn’t delivered in big scenes with long, self-explanatory monologues, but in the way Doran and Gold establish the simple on-going project of her life. The play’s events are crafted through the characters’ commitment to one another, despite the essential, hovering doubt that infuses their interactions, much like the mist that obscures Sean and Anna’s wedding on the cliffs in Ireland at the play’s end.

For example, schooled by more conventional realism, we expect that Linda will undergo some profound catharsis that will exorcise the trauma of her rape. She finally does move outside to sit on the stoop of her house with Anna, and in the end, walks to the very cliffs where the rape took place to attend her son’s wedding.

But when Linda finally ends her self-imprisonment, Doran doesn’t herald the moment as a blaring triumph. The playwright presents it instead as an understated, simple movement forward. Linda’s liberation comes from the Xanax Anna supplies, and from the supportive arm Adam offers when it comes time to attend to the wedding ceremony. Doran suggests that great emotional revelations aren’t as important as the simple ways in which we help one another get through—with a pill or an arm that makes unexpected progress possible.

That the story culminates in a (heterosexual) marriage should make it seem conservative, but instead, the event seems less about the couple and more about the fragile but committed community that surrounds them. All the principals gather upstage, in a terrifically executed rainfall and cold mist that billows out into the first rows of the audience. As rain drenches the dearly beloved, Helena officiates, shouting against the weather that she’s not present in a religious capacity, but as a witness.

Linda stands beside Adam, revisiting for the first time the site of her own rape to observe her son’s marriage. Despite how momentous her presence is, Doran doesn’t focus the scene on Linda. But her attendance at the wedding underlines that change is fundamentally possible, that we can return to the scene of a crime and revise what that place means, that we can stand in it differently and reorient ourselves to our pasts and our futures.

Sean and Anna’s wedding isn’t inevitable in Kin. Both characters wonder if they should leave the relationship. Sean visits Rachel to see if the emotions he imagines still exist, and finds her already married, sober, and rather empty, unable to recall any of what must have been their old feeling.Anna confides in Helena that she feels alone even when she’s beside Sean, and thinks about leaving him.

Yet they do marry, not because they’re settling for less, but because Kin suggests that though doubt is a fundamental condition of our lives, it doesn’t prevent us from living. All the characters endure some sort of emotional damage that complicates their responses and relationships, but in Doran’s hands, their baggage isn’t predictive or fundamental, but only emotions that they carry along and move through, as time passes.

Kin is structured around two- or three-character exchanges until the very end, when the assembled community gathers for the wedding. The intimate style of those small scenes demonstrates Doran’s facility with language, her ear for how people talk to one another, garnished with a poet’s sense of how the content of what we say draws on a well of feeling that’s often expressed indirectly, metaphorically.

Gold directed Circle Mirror Transformation and Aliens, both written by Annie Baker, whose plays resemble Doran’s in their attention to tiny human interactions and the threads of relationships that make up lives and emotional communities. He directs Kin with a strong but simple visual style and deep emotional understanding. This is an actor’s play, which Gold and designers Paul Steinberg (set) and Jane Cox (lights) frame gracefully to highlight the characters’ connections.

Occasionally, when a scene ends, the actors who just performed remain on the set in a half-light to watch the next scene. Doran and Gold offer these moments of silent witnessing, of characters (or actors) just being there for one another, watching their lives unfold across time, perhaps to illustrate the wordless support we bring to our relationships just by staying connected.

Gold’s exquisite direction trusts the ensemble of talented actors to convey the script’s nuances. The set, which the actors move into its various configurations, shows us as if through a picture frame how we capture, if not memorialize, moments in our lives. The set’s predominating clocks seem to underline our passage onward and our sometimes perplexing faith that simply moving through time and space will lead us somewhere, however unexpected, however surprising.

Life, Kin tells us, is never perfect, but can be very good. After their wedding, Sean unexpectedly exclaims to Anna, “I hope we don’t die,” and she says, gently, “We won’t, not for a very long time.”The simple exchange crystalizes our continual surprise at the preciousness and fragility of our lives.The play ends on a note of hope, with a warm faith that by extending our kinship, we sustain ourselves.

The Feminist Spectator

Kin, by Bathsheba Doran, directed by Sam Gold, Playwrights Horizons, March 18, 2011.

A Small Fire

Although it takes a moment or two to pick up speed, Adam Bock’s play at Playwrights Horizons gathers momentum as it hurtles toward a conclusion that might have left me bereft but instead is surprisingly hopeful and heartening. A Small Fire is ultimately about what we can survive without, and how elemental love might become when there’s little left to feel with but your sense of touch. The play works metaphorically as it contemplates the stuff of relationships, but its content is quite brutal. I left the theatre feeling intrigued, but uneasy that once again, a ballsy middle-aged woman seemed to have been punished for leading her own singular life.

Emily Bridges (Michele Pawk) owns a construction company. She works in a man’s field in a man’s way, literally wearing pants and a hard hat, sauntering around construction sites swearing like the best of them. But while she might appear rough, and even upbraids her construction foreman for paying too much for a load of carpet, Bock establishes fairly early that Emily’s got a hidden soul and a basically big heart. Her care, however, is easier to express outside the confines of her small family. For instance, she’s concerned about a worker whose father is ill, and whose cousin was recently killed by a baseball bat wielded by her out-of-control son. But she has a harder time working up interest in her own daughter.

Emily trades stories about the workers with her foreman, Billy, a big teddy-bear of a guy whom she seeks out to trade confidences more often than she does her husband. John Bridges (the always wonderful Reed Birney) is a mild-mannered guy who adores his wife, probably more than she does him, and mediates patiently between her and their daughter, Jenny (Celia Keenan-Bolger). The two women, it seems, have never gotten along, and the daughter’s upcoming marriage to a man Emily expressly dislikes has salted a long-festering wound.

Bock spends perhaps 15 of the play’s 80-minute run time with short scenes of strangely awkward set-up. These small exchanges between two characters at a time aren’t really exposition, because we don’t learn a whole lot more than I’ve just shared about these people. Bock establishes that Jenny sides with her father in what she perceives as his bad marriage to her mother. He also indicates that John is happy with Emily, despite Jenny’s projections about her mother’s neglect. More than the family’s past, the first few scenes are in some ways about their future. Jenny and John sit at the kitchen table going over a seating chart for Jenny’s wedding as they discuss Emily and her difficult demeanor. Jenny wants John to leave Emily, a strange desire for a child to express to a parent so openly.

In these initial scenes of both over- and understatement, Bock seems to make his case for why it’s soon going to be okay to cut Emily off at the knees. That’s the only explanation I can think of for these preliminaries, since we don’t know the characters well enough to care about who gets seated next to whom at Jenny’s wedding. Even though Bock notes, in his print interview with Playwrights Horizons’ artistic director Tim Sanford, which is handed out in the theatre lobby, that there are perhaps 80 different characters mentioned in his play, we see only four of them onstage. The others are cited too fleetingly and schematically to inspire empathy or interest. They’re the wallpaper of the Bridges’ lives.

As a result, Bock seems to be telling more than he’s showing in those first few scenes. Even when Emily fails to smell the small fire of the play’s title, which she’s inadvertently started by leaving a napkin near a stove burner, the play’s events seem prosaic.

But that insignificant fire augurs the strange things that start happening to Emily.When she announces that she’s in fact lost her sense of smell and taste, and that the doctor she’s seen can’t do anything for her, the play takes on a new sheen of urgency. Suddenly, the woman who doesn’t fit easily into her husband and daughter’squotidian domestic world now has physical excuses for feeling alien. Emily can’t taste the wedding cake Jenny brings to her parents’ house for approval. While John revels in its lusciousness, Emily complains that it tastes like chalk. John is disconcerted by his wife’s reaction, but Jenny thinks Emily’s uncharitable response to the dessert represents only how much her mother hates her fiancée.

As Emily abruptly, inexplicably begins to lose her senses, each of John’s is suddenly heightened by comparison. For no apparent reason, as the couple sits at home talking, Emily loses her sight. She comes to Jenny’s wedding anyway, helped into her dressy clothes by her daughter in a moment of mutually uncomfortable physical intimacy. But at the wedding reception, Emily sits alone on a chair, heart-breaking in her new disability, feeling both invisible and conspicuous because she can’t navigate away from the chair in which John has placed her.

In one of the play’s most touching scenes, John brings Emily champagne—which she refuses, since she can’t really taste it—and sits beside his wife, holding her hand and recounting the happy events taking place off stage. John vividly and joyfully describes someone catching the wedding bouquet, and the sometimes fraught results of the seating chart he and Jenny prepared earlier. Emily feigns polite interest, but she’s clearly terrified and perplexed by what’s happening to her, and finally admits she needs to go home. Soon after, she suddenly loses her hearing.

Pawk plays Emily with a beautiful mix of compassion, empathy, and irony. She seems to realize that in many ways, her character is more an absurdist symbol than she is flesh and blood. But at the same time, Pawk commits fully and convincingly to the devastated emotional response people must have to losing their senses after a full lifetime of enjoying them. When she realizes her hearing is gone, along with her sight, her smell, and her sense of taste, Pawk plays Emily’s reaction with palpable, wrenching terror.

Bock writes short, small scenes with a compacted emotional tension and energy. Director Trip Cullman moves the four actors gracefully and simply across a suggestive set by Loy Arcenas that allows the scenes to fade quickly into each other, and allows the actors to stay in character as they move from place to place. Pawk and Birney transport their emotions from moment to moment with equal fluidity and grace. If the situation is unconvincing as realism, Bock and Cullman manage to create a poignant Absurdism, one in which John and Emily find their way back to one another almost as a result of their changed circumstances. The play ends—spoiler alert—with this ordinary middle-aged couple having fairly graphic if simulated sex, after which Emily gratefully proclaims that “I’m still in here, John.” Bock and Cullman offer a moving affirmation of how people can continue to connect, even with very little left to go on.

Pawk and Reed manage to wring gravity and nuance from their cipher-like characters, and their chemistry with one another makes them convincing as a long-married couple. They find their way to something essential with one another, despite the adversity Emily’s mysterious deterioration presents and whatever emotional and physical drifting might have predated their new challenges. But what does Bock mean to suggest with these metaphors of loss and disability? What’s his central point? That if we love one another, we can overcome ever-worsening physical and emotional odds? That we need to stand by one another no matter what? That we can rise to the occasion of whatever life throws at us, regardless of how inhumane and horrific are the failings of our bodies and our ever more imminent deaths?

In the play’s best speech, Billy (Victor Williams), the company foreman, tells John that he should see Emily’s predicament as an opportunity rather than an obstacle, as a chance to be “bigger” about his life. It’s a beautiful line (I’ve probably misquoted it here), which I heard it to mean that we can often find reserves in ourselves that don’t ennoble us so much as they open us to new ways of thinking about our lives. John tells Jenny—his small-souled daughter, who can’t bear to deal with her mother’s new inability to communicate or to see her, since Jenny has always felt invisible to Emily—that it’s not what you get from a relationship, it’s what you give that matters.

This might be an overstatement, but Bock uses it as evidence of John’s growth, not into martyred selflessness, but into a dawning understanding that he can do this, that he can indeed enlarge himself, that he can become Emily’s conduit to the world, even as her body conspires to narrow her existence only to what she can touch. Reed plays John’s developing strength beautifully, with quiet empathy and a great deal of grace.

Williams is very good, too, as Billy, the sympathetic foreman who insists on visiting Emily and whose presence, for a moment, brings her back to herself. She can still talk, but the others can only communicate with her by squeezing her hand once for “yes” and twice for “no.” This limits their dialogue; Emily can only ask simple questions or monologue, speaking from the desperate, dark and quiet center of her isolation like someone in a Beckett play.

But when Billy sits beside her on the couch grasping her hand and signaling his responses, the two really seem to be talking, because she’s so glad to see him and their connection is so somehow genuine. The devastating scene underlines the strength of character Emily has lost—for a moment, she’s once again the swaggering, powerful, butch boss-woman whom Billy loves and admires. But then, in the very next moment, she needs help to the bathroom, and she dismisses Billy, humiliated.

Billy tries to relieve John by getting him out of the house, up to Billy’s roof to visit the homing pigeons Billy raises and flies. Their scenes, too, are sweet, if a bit too highly symbolic. The birds determined to find their way back to Billy, even after they’ve been driven long distances and released to test their ability to return, provide an almost too-clear analogy for Emily and John’s trial. But up on his roof, Billy embodies the largess of spirit he wishes for John.

It turns out that Billy is gay, and lost a partner some years ago to AIDS, a story he tells as he’s trying to convince John to take the challenge of Emily’s illness and let it change him for the better. The scene is somewhat surprising; although earlier scenes refer obliquely to Billy’s sexuality, that he talks about his past and present male partners so matter-of-factly is both refreshing and strangely unmotivated. I appreciated Billy’s references to a generation of gay men dying of AIDS; we’re too quickly forgetting the ravages of the 1980s.

The common cause Billy forms with John and Emily reminds his straight friends that others, too, have and will suffer terrifying, compromising, baffling illnesses. But on the other hand, Billy functions as the too saintly, finally external, non-family member, gay character who generously assists the straight couple’s plot trajectory and transformation.

I was moved by A Small Fire, even as I was disconcerted by watching yet another strong, middle-aged female character be stripped of her power and her dignity to serve the purposes of the plot and the playwright’s point. And my colleagues in disability studies would no doubt suggest that Bock’s play is another in a long time of American dramas and films that use disability as a metaphor, rather than examining what it means as a way of being in its own right.

But as a metaphor, Emily and John’s plight stands as a surprisingly moving reminder of how damaged we all are, and how helplessly at the mercy of our inevitably failing bodies. A Small Fire’s contribution, perhaps, is to remind us that our excuses for not rising to the challenge of love and commitment are entirely inadequate. Emily and John discover ways to reconnect and, in the process, Emily finds reasons to stay alive, to stay literally in touch, and to embrace even a compromised intimacy as one for which it’s worth living.

The Feminist Spectator

Link to original post on Blogspot.

Circle Mirror Transformation

Annie Baker’s play, in a wonderful production directed by Sam Gold at Playwrights Horizons, takes place in the familiar, anonymous sterility of an all-purpose room at a community center, the kind of room that so often doubles as a crucible for community theatre and other arts. Exercise equipment clutters the floor, alongside the detritus of other objects useful for other kinds of groups. All become extraneous to the do-it-yourself creativity and faux self-help spiritualism-cum-acting lessons offered by the well-meant but self-involved would-be theatre guru, Marty.

As the oblivious leader of the four-member class, the middle-aged woman (played with a perfect balance of empathy and tone-deaf self-involvement by Deirdre O’Connell) tries to inspire her tiny band of followers to explore their inner psychology as a prerequisite to emotionally honest acting. But as Lauren (Tracee Chimo), the socially maladroit but emotionally acute teenager who’s the youngest person in the mismatched group of players notes plaintively, it’s not at all clear how any of this is going to help anyone learn how to be an actor.

Still, for Marty, the self-exploration and pseudo-psychologizing that are her stock in trade provide their own reward. It’s not at all clear that Marty has ever acted professionally; she’s one of those so-called artists who hang out a shingle on the basis of a happy fantasy rather than real life experience. Clearly, she’s cajoled her husband, James (Peter Friedman), to be part of the group, and he tries his best to go with the flow until the psychobabble gets the better of him and he takes the trust exercises a bit too far.

Schultz, Marty’s other male student, is a hapless divorcee with pent-up anger issues.Schultz is still not over the fact that his wife has left him, but he falls hard for Theresa, the supposedly “real” actor who’s moved to this remote hamlet of Shirley, Vermont, to escape her own relationship issues, as well as her own failed career. She’s just broken up with her boyfriend, an older man who controlled her jealously, a rather masochistic involvement that Theresa seems to have enjoyed more than she’s willing to admit.

Marty hurls herself into grooming this ragtag group, putting them through the ridiculous emotional recall, storytelling, and trust exercises familiar to any one who’s taken a community acting class at their local high school or playhouse. She asks the students to interview one another and then perform the narratives they collect, stories that Baker uses to structure the play’s cumulative revelations. Telling personal stories borrowed from their partners in a first-person form provides a rather sweet, halting demonstration of how the students get to know one another.

Since it’s impossible for them to perform one another without the barest hint of editorializing, we come to know the characters through how they describe and observe one another’s flaws and discrepancies during their interviews. As the six weeks of the class tick by, announced by slides projected between each scene, the characters’ back-stories are filled in a bit more, in tales that the students eventually use against one another as the trust exercises back-fire.

Each of the characters becomes likable in their own slightly askew way, as Baker gradually reveals their humor, their pain, and their sorrow. Several times, they lie on their backs on the studio floor trying to count collectively but consecutively to ten without stepping on one another’s numbers. The exercise is meant to foster trust and good listening skills. That the small ensemble can’t actually get to ten until near the play’s end marks both their failure and, at last, the ways in which they have indeed grown closer, more attune to one another’s presences and habits, their desires and frustrations.

O’Connell, as Marty, does an excellent job creating the pseudo-sincere care and attention of the not very talented acting teacher. She carefully watches each improvised moment she sets up among her pupils, positioning herself for optimal observation in a contrived, “artistic” pose, never explaining why she’s putting them through these emotional paces and never articulating what exactly they’ve done well or poorly. That each of the students simply follows her lead, rarely questioning her motives or their acting education, rings too true. I could hear who among my fellow spectators had taken such a class by the knowing laughter we shared at those familiar moments.

Marty’s husband, James, tries hard to be supportive of his flaky artistic wife. Marty shares the story of their meeting, a romantic moment at a friend’s wedding that depends on the kind of kismet in which only an aging hippy bohemian could continue to invest. But it becomes clear over the course of the play that their happiness is frayed, the romance fading. Their daughter, Erin, has stopped speaking to her father because Marty revealed to her a meaningless indiscretion James committed during his first marriage. James is devastated by his daughter’s silence and her sudden allegiance with Marty against him.

Friedman conveys James’s perplexed confusion over these sudden turns in his life, finding emotional candor in a character without a whole lot to say. James’s vulnerability makes him prey to the sultry charms of Theresa, the failed New York actress who’s here in the middle of nowhere to heal her own emotional wounds, and winds up seducing both men (and the teenaged Lauren) with her comfort in her body and her apparently open, if facile, vulnerability.

The versatile Reed Birney (whose raw performance in Blasted at Soho Rep was one of last season’s best) is excellent here as the wounded Schultz, who quickly falls in love with Theresa and is just as quickly and violently devastated when their brief affair doesn’t last. His need is palpable, even before clueless Marty makes the unsuccessful couple act out a scene in which his need becomes his only dialogue. Birney plays Schultz’s mercurial mood swings convincingly; even his sudden, menacing aggression seems justified when his rage boils up out of nowhere in the midst of his “objective” exercise with Theresa.

The play’s humor keeps it entertaining and holds at bay what could be more maudlin moments. As the baleful Lauren, Chimo is superb at physical humor; her expressions, as she reacts to the sometimes peculiar interactions of the adults, are priceless. Chimo can raise an eyebrow, widen her eyes, clench her fists, or raise her shoulders and communicate an entire paragraph of response to the absurdities of what she sees.When in the penultimate scene Marty asks her students to write down, distribute anonymously, and then read out loud something about themselves that they’ve never told another soul, it’s obviously Lauren’s slip of paper that says she secretly believes she’s smarter than everybody else in the world.

Even though she’s been an awkward, comically withdrawn presence through much of the play, that personal secret is clearly true. Lauren knows that her parents aren’t happy; knows that Marty and James’s marriage is headed for its end; sees through Theresa’s seductions while she’s also attracted to them; and is the only character in the play who expresses well-founded doubt that Marty’s ministrations are really going to make them better actors.

The shared secrets—meant to open the students emotionally and bind them psychologically—also reveal (if the characters are telling the truth) that Schultz has a secret addiction to internet porn; that James is in love with Theresa; and that Marty thinks she was molested by her father. These carefully held truths, when shared, seem at once virtuous and pathetic, and set in motion the play’s final bittersweet revelations.

As the orchestrator of what become emotionally acute confessions, Marty is as devastated as the others at what she hears. But she persists, like the soulful artist she believes herself to be, and ends the six-week class by asking Lauren and Schultz to act out one final improvisation, in which they meet one another 10 years later and share news of their lives.

The scene is both hilarious and poignant, as Schultz takes the opportunity to say out loud how Theresa “messed with my mind,” and for Lauren to predict that Marty and James will divorce, along with her parents. While Schultz asks the probing questions, playwright Baker clarifies that it’s Lauren who’s been prescient and wise all along, as she sees clearly into their collective futures.

Lauren enrolled in the class because she wants to be an actress, but realizes as she improvises her view of the future that she’ll be better off as a veterinarian, and sees herself 10 years out happily mated with a boyfriend in the same field. She’s kept in touch with Marty, who it turns out really does care for the odd young woman, predicting that at least one of the relationships so cavalierly dissected by the acting class has been established “for real” and will last. That final moment is both sad and hopeful, as Lauren’s improvised vision brings each character to a rueful but useful understanding of who they really are.

Circle Mirror Transformation is a lovely evening of theatre: fun and funny, smart and knowing, and hugely generous about the imperfect characters Baker portrays so simply and clearly. The play might not change your life, but like the acting class Marty wants so much to offer, it does offer insights into what our lives are and might be about, and demonstrates that the artistic impulse to see something about the human condition really can be felt, even in those tired, empty, all purpose rooms.

The production’s run has been extended to November 21.

The Feminist Spectator

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